Does Anybody Who Remembers Laughter Still Have Their Ticket Stub?

Led Zeppelin Played Here

by George Wolf

So, what’s your I-saw-them-before-they-were-famous concert story?

For me, it was a young INXS opening for Men at Work and blowing them off a stage in Cleveland. Men at Work?? I know, I know, but it was my high school National Honor Society field trip, whataya gonna do?

Some people have a better story than any of us. They will tell you they were one of the 50 or so in attendance when a brand new band called Led Zeppelin played a small suburban rec center in January of 1969.

That’s a great story. It might even be true. Led Zeppelin Played Here is director Jeff Krulik’s entertaining attempt to settle it once and for all.

The small gymnasium/youth center in Wheaton, Maryland actually has a decent history of rock shows, including Iggy and the Stooges (“he smeared peanut butter all over the walls!”) and the Faces with a nearly unknown Rod Stewart. There are old photos and ticket stubs still around from those shows…but for that legendary Zeppelin show?

Nope.

Trying to prove the existence of a rock history Bigfoot is a fun premise, but doesn’t really provide enough material to keep a full length documentary afloat. Krulik shows solid instincts for what makes good filler, taking us back to the early days of rock concert promotion before, as one promoter puts it, “Woodstock turned $5,000 acts into $100,000 acts.”

And, without belaboring the point, there’s an undercurrent in the film about how human nature can play havoc with memory. Are these phantom concert-goers remembering laughter simply because they want to? Could be.

Though there are some classic moments of archival sound and video, the production values in LZPH can be rough. Krulik’s film gets by more on heart than technical expertise, but give him props for tracking down an impossibly polite Jimmy Page and asking about the mysterious concert face to face.

So, did Zeppelin rock Wheaton or not?

I know what I think.

I think Men at Work sucked.

Beyond Aging Gracefully

Beyond the Reach

by Hope Madden

Michael Douglas continues to find intriguing ways to evolve as an actor. Now into his 7th decade on the planet, the actor has taken more and more interesting roles, generally succeeding. His Liberace in 2013’s Beyond the Candelabra marked a high point in his long career, and for his latest, the thriller Beyond the Reach, he reimagines a role originated by Andy Griffith, of all people.

Douglas plays a multi-millionaire named Madec, a man who collects trophies, buying his way out of red tape and problems, no matter how dire. He finds himself in hot water when an expensive but unlicensed hunt for “big horns” goes wrong. When he suspects that his young guide may not be as easily bought as he’d hoped, he devises a particularly nasty Plan B.

Jeremy Irvine (War Horse) is Ben, Madec’s wholesome but potentially corruptible young guide. What emerges is more than a sadistic cat and mouse game, mostly because Douglas patiently unveils layers to the character that feel at once horrifying and utterly natural.

It’s a straight forward thriller wisely adapted by Stephen Susco from a novel by Robb White. White was the source writer for many an exploitation flick back in the day (House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, 13 Ghosts), and while Susco maintains the same type of urgency and thrill, his taut script is as interested in character as terror.

There is something so genuine about Douglas’s performance – he’s a shark, a man who’s amassed enormous wealth through charm, savvy, and cut-throat maneuvering. His sense of entitlement is based on decades of success, success that has encouraged him to see the world exactly as he sees it here. As ugly as his behavior is, it isn’t necessarily personal. It’s survival. It’s business.

Irvine handles his task capably, but it’s Douglas who makes the film worth watching. What begins as simply the clearest (if most heartless) strategy toward achieving a goal becomes, as time wears on, an old buck’s attempt to dominate the young challenger to his alpha status.

Beyond the Reach is a simple premise and a simple film that could very easily have become another throwaway thriller, and though it’s certainly no masterpiece, it transcends its exploitation trappings thanks to a veteran actor who knows what it means to be a survivor.

Verdict-3-0-Stars





Come and Watch Us Sing and Play

Monkey Kingdom

by Hope Madden

Earth Day rears its smiling, nervously optimistic head once again with Disneynature’s latest eco-doc Monkey Kingdom.

Directors Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill have carved an impressive career of environmental documentaries, for both the large and small screen. Monkey Kingdom boasts the same skillful mixture of environmental grandeur and character-driven intimacy, and the film is as visually glorious as any in this series. Still, you have to wonder how many hours of wildlife footage is accrued before the filmmakers can impose a storyline on the proceedings.

That is not to suggest the tale is entirely make believe. Monkey Kingdom rolls cameras in the jungles of South Asia, capturing the complex social structure of a macaque monkey troop. What unfolds is a kind of Cinderella story of the low-born Maya and her efforts to fend for herself and her newborn.

As we’ve come to expect from Disney’s doc series, Monkey Kingdom sheds light on the intricate social workings of the subject, and macaques turn out to be fascinating creatures with the kind of structured social order that begs for exactly this treatment. At first we watch as lowly Maya sleeps in the cold and eats from the ground while the alpha and other high born monkeys nap in sunlight and feast on the ripe fruit at the top of the tree. Can she ever hope for more? (At least we can rest assured that there’s no make-over coming.)

The intricate pecking order sets the perfect stage for an underdog film full of scrap, perseverance and triumph.

Narrator Tina Fey’s smiling, workaday feminism gives the film personality and relates it to humanity without having to even try.

While the film keeps your attention throughout, Monkey Kingdom lacks some of the punch of other Disney Earth Day flicks. Linfield and Fothergill’s 2012 film Chimpanzee had the 5-year-olds at my screening sobbing breathlessly, whereas Monkey Kingdom might elicit a compassionate frown.

Between the built-in drama of the “overcoming adversity” storyline and the occasional giddy monkey hijinks (the bit where the troop crashes a birthday party is particularly enjoyable), the film compels attention as it shares eco-savvy information kids may even remember.

Documentary purists will balk at the anthropomorphized story, but families will enjoy this thoroughly entertaining film.

Verdict-3-5-Stars





Spooky Stories For Your Queue

The best horror film (indeed, one of the very best films, period) of 2014 is available today for home entertainment and you must see The Babadook. Writer/director/Australian Jennifer Kent, with an assist from cinematographer Radek Ladczuk and magnificent performances from Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman – has crafted an unsettling and spooky haunted house style tale.

The horror here is fueled by compassion generated by the naturalistic performances. Kent has captured something with primal urgency, something simultaneously heartbreaking and terrifying. The film’s subtext sits like a raw nerve just below the scary happenings afoot, making this as the freshest and most relevant horror film of 2014.

Pair it with another remarkable tale of either a crazy mother or a supernatural presence, J. A. Bayona’s 2007 ghost story The Orphanage.

Belen Rueda shines as a mother whose son disappears shortly after making imaginary friends at the orphanage the family owns. Bayona creates a haunted atmosphere and Rueda’s utter commitment to the character keeps the film breathless. It is a spooky nightmare that takes its material seriously and delivers.





Fright Club: Best Horror of the Nineties

The Nineties boasted more good horror than you might remember. It was a time of big budget, Oscar nominated studio films like Misery and early genre work from filmmakers who would go on to become the best in the business, like Fincher’s Seven, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, Tarantino and Rodriguez’s From Dusk Til Dawn, and Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder. Foreign films made a splash – Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, and a wave of Japanese films that would have a powerful influence in the next decade of American horror. Here we pick the best of the decade.

5. Cape Fear (1991)

In 1991, Martin Scorsese toyed with the horror genre with a remake of the ’62 Gregory Peck/Robert Mitchum power struggle between a steamy psychopath and an uptight lawyer. Scorsese mines the very ripe concept for more outright horror, recasting Robert DeNiro – still on top of his game and garnering an Oscar nomination – as Max Cady, a deeply disturbed criminal who should not be underestimated. Nick Nolte takes on the Peck role, but it’s Juliette Lewis (also Oscar nominated) as Nolte and Jessica Lange’s teenage daughter who amps up the unseemly tension.

Scorsese and his cast know how to wring anxiety from an audience and their film brims with a sultry tension that keeps everything on edge. It’s masterful storytelling with a throwback feel, the kind of film that finds you yelling at the screen, not because characters are doing anything stupid, but because you know better than they do just how terrifying Max Cady is. Still, the evil that he can do manages to stagger every single time.

4. Scream (1996)

In its time, Scream resurrected a basically dying genre, using clever meta-analysis and black humor. What you have is a traditional high school slasher – someone dons a likeness of Edvard Munch’s most famous painting and plants a butcher knife in a local teen, leading to red herrings, mystery, bloodletting and whatnot. But director Wes Craven’s on the inside looking out and he wants you to know it.

What makes Scream stand apart is the way it critiques horror clichés as it employs them, subverting expectation just when we most rely on it. We spent the next five years or more watching talented TV teens and sitcom stars make the big screen leap to slashers, mostly with weak results, but Scream stands the test of time. It could be the wryly clever writing or the solid performances, but I think it’s the joyous fondness for a genre and its fans that keeps this one fresh.

3. The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Blair Witch may not date especially well, but it scared the hell out of a lot of people back in the day. This is the kind of forest adventure that I assume happens all the time: you go in, but no matter how you try to get out – follow a stream, use a map, follow the stars – you just keep crossing the same goddamn log.

One of several truly genius ideas behind Blair Witch is that filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez made the audience believe that the film they were watching was nothing more than the unearthed footage left behind by three disappeared young people. Between that and the wise use of online marketing (then in its infancy) buoyed this minimalistic, naturalistic home movie about three bickering buddies who venture into the Maryland woods to document the urban legend of The Blair Witch. Twig dolls, late night noises, jumpy cameras, unknown actors and not much else blended into an honestly frightening flick that played upon nightmares I have almost every night.

2. Audition, 1999

Audition tells the story of a widower convinced by his TV producer friend to hold mock television auditions as a way of finding a suitable new mate. He is repaid for his deception.

Nearly unwatchable and yet too compelling to turn away from, Audition is a remarkable piece of genre filmmaking from horror master Takashi Miike. The slow moving picture builds anticipation, then dread, then full-on horror. Midway through, Miike punctuates the film with one of the most effective startles in modern horror, and then picks up the pace, building grisly momentum toward a perversely uncomfortable climax. By the time Audition hits its ghastly conclusion, Miike and his exquisitely terrifying antagonist (Eihi Shina) have wrung the audience dry. She will not be the ideal stepmother.

Keep an eye on that burlap sack.

1. The Silence of the Lambs

It’s to director Jonathan Demme’s credit that Silence made that leap from lurid exploitation to art. His masterful composition of muted colors and tense but understated score, his visual focus on the characters rather than their actions, and his subtle but powerful use of camera elevate this story above its exploitative trappings. Of course, the performances didn’t hurt.

Hannibal Lecter ranks as one of cinema’s greatest and scariest villains, and that accomplishment owes everything to Anthony Hopkins’s performance. It’s his eerie calm, his measured speaking, his superior grin that give Lecter power. Everything about his performance reminds the viewer that this man is smarter than you and he’ll use that for dangerous ends. But it’s Ted Levine who goes underappreciated. Levine’s Buffalo Bill makes such a great counterpoint to Hopkins’s Lecter. He’s all animal – big, lumbering, capable of explosive violence – where Lecter’s all intellect. Buffalo Bill’s a curiously sexual being, where Lecter is all but asexual.

Demme makes sure it’s Lecter that gets under our skin, though, in the way he creates a parallel between Lecter and Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster). It’s Clarice we’re all meant to identify with, and yet Demme suggests that she and Lecter share some similarities, which means that maybe we share some, too.

Usually, a director shoots a villain from below, making him look larger and more menacing. The victim is usually shot from above, which makes them seem smaller, less powerful, more vulnerable, and cuter. When Clarice and Lecter are talking in the prison, they’re shot at the same angle, eliminating that power struggle. They’re shot as equals.

More than that, during their conversations, Demme captures each character’s reflection in the partition glass as the other speaks, once again making the visual impression that these two are equals, have similarities, are in some ways alike. No one is like Buffalo Bill. He’s incomprehensible. Unacceptable. But Demme generates something akin to sympathy in his depiction of Hannibal in relation to Clarice, and given how terrifying he is, that’s equally unsettling.

Listen to the whole conversation – join our FRIGHT CLUB PODCAST.





Talkin’ Bout My Generation

While We’re Young

by George Wolf

So far, Hollywood’s attempts to address the social media revolution have fluctuated between lackluster and downright embarrassing (Men, Women and Children? Yikes). While We’re Young gets it more right than most, thanks to less of the usual microscope and more of a layered, universal narrative.

Writer/director Noah Baumbach is able to weave the contrasts between older technology “immigrants” and the younger tech “natives” into a larger, utterly charming overview of shifting generations and the humor in realizing you’re not so young anymore.

Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cordelia (Naomi Watts) are a happy, childless couple in New York who suddenly become friends with Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a pair of hipsters about twenty years younger.

In an instant, Cordelia and Darby are taking hip hop dance classes and Josh is shopping for fedoras with Jamie, then cranking “Eye of the Tiger” to get pumped up for a business meeting (even though he admits listening to the same song back “when it was just bad”). They ditch their longtime friends who now have young children, and convince each other they are free spirits blessed with limitless opportunity.

As Josh slowly begins to look a bit deeper into Jamie’s motives for hanging with him, their interplay comes to resemble Baumbach confronting his younger self, along with the futile anxieties of growing old “gracefully.” Baumbach seems perfectly comfortable in this new skin, crafting a film that is often smart, funny, and bittersweet all at once. His work has never been more accessible.

The characters are all sharply drawn and relatable, fleshed out by a talented cast that lets Baumbach touch on a variety of serious topics with a confident blend of laughter and nuance. The performances are all dead on, with Driver shining in the film’s most complex role.

Baumbach does risk a cop out with the convenient plot turn that comes near the finish, but it’s not nearly enough to derail the knowing smile that While We’re Young is bound to leave you wearing.

And that looks better than a fedora on almost all of us…of a certain age.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 





A Blood Simple Plan for Old Slingblade Men in Fargo

Cut Bank

by George Wolf

Pulpy from the get go, Cut Bank is an oddly interesting crime drama, seemingly inspired by several recent genre classics and held together by a well-seasoned cast having fun with some classic film noir archetypes.

It starts with the restless Dwayne (Liam Hemsworth) and his spunky girlfriend Cassandra (Teresa Palmer), who are out standing in a Cut Bank, Montana field with a camcorder. She’s practicing her speech for the upcoming Miss Cut Bank pageant and he’s filming it when suddenly, Dwayne also captures the murder of longtime town mailman Georgie (Bruce Dern).

Wouldn’t you know it, there’s a big reward for evidence in the murder of any postal worker, and Cassandra’s surly father (Billy Bob Thorton) sniffs out the plan right quick. So does local recluse Derby Milton (Michael Stuhlbarg, stealing the film), who really wants a certain package that is still in Georgie’s stolen mail truck. From there, things begin unraveling in an increasingly bloody fashion, much to chagrin of the folksy Sheriff Vogel (John Malkovich).

Both director Matt Shakman and writer Robert Patino are television vets moving to the big screen, and it’s easy to imagine their film springing from notes taken while watching Fargo, A Simple Plan, No Country for Old Men or even Sling Blade. Those are some high aspirations to be sure, and it would have been advisable to make the homages a little less transparent.

Even the cast provides an ironic catch-22. The charisma-free Hemsworth aside, these are veteran talents going toe to toe and it’s a kick to watch, so that’s good. But collectively they provide very few degrees of separation from any of the films Cut Bank resembles, making it even harder for the film to measure up.

Still, it might have beaten the odds had Shakman been able to find a consistent tone. Though always watchable, it isn’t clear if Cut Bank wants to be a dark comedy or a true noir thriller, so it’s never urgent enough to be compelling. Solid footing always seems just out of reach, leaving the film in that murky middle that is seldom satisfying.

 

Verdict-2-5-Stars

 





Let’s Do Some Crimes For Your Queue

If box office numbers can be trusted, you probably missed A Most Violent Year when it was in theaters in 2014. Now is your chance to remedy that wrong. The film – one of the finest and most underseen of last year – releases for home entertainment this week. Just the third film from fascinating director J.C. Chandor, it’s a look at the merits and moral compromise of the American Dream in a gritty drama set in NYC’s crime-ridden 1980. The look is impeccable, outdone only by a spectacular cast anchored by another magnificent turn from Oscar Isaac.

While it would make just as much sense to highlight either of Chandor’s previous efforts, A Most Violent Year makes us nostalgic for the filmmaking of Sidney Lumet, so instead we decided to pair it with his last, wonderful effort, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. An older brother (the great Philip Seymour Hoffman) hiding dark, addictive behavior, talks his sad-sack younger brother (Ethan Hawke) into something unthinkable. It’s the last master turn from Lumet with help from a top to bottom wonderful cast.





Fright Club: Best Eighties Horror

We’re back to the decade countdown, this week looking at the best horror had to offer in the Eighties. This is the decade that spawned more horror franchises and iconic villains than any other – Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Evil Dead and Hellraiser to begin with. Somewhere in a haze of Aquanet that era also churned out more bad horror than any decade should, but here we will focus on the five best from the Duran Duran Decade.

5. An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Director John Landis blends horror, humor, and a little romance with cutting edge (at the time) special effects to tell the tale of a handsome American tourist David (David Naughton) doomed to turn into a Pepper – I mean a werewolf – at the next full moon.

Two college kids (Naughton and Griffin Dunne), riding in the back of a pickup full of sheep, backpacking across the moors, talk about girls and look for a place to duck out of the rain.

Aah, a pub – The Slaughtered Lamb – that’ll do!

The scene in the pub is awesome, as is the scene that follows, where the boys are stalked across the foggy moors. Creepy foreboding leading to real terror, this first act grabs you and the stage is set for a sly and scary escapade. The wolf looks cool, the sound design is fantastically horrifying, and Landis’s brightly subversive humor has never had a better showcase.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3uw6QPThCqE

4. Poltergeist (1982)

This aggressive take on the haunted house tale wraps director Tobe Hooper’s potent horrors inside producer Steven Spielberg’s brightly lit suburbia. In both of Spielberg’s ’82 films, the charade of suburban peace is disrupted by a supernatural presence. In E.T., though, there’s less face tearing.

Part of Poltergeist’s success emerged from pairing universal childhood fears – clowns, thunderstorms, that creepy tree – with the adult terror of helplessness in the face of your own child’s peril. JoBeth Williams’s performance of vulnerable optimism gives the film a heartbeat, and the unreasonably adorable Heather O’Rourke creeps us out while tugging our heartstrings.

Splashy effects, excellent casting, Spielberg’s heart and Hooper’s gut combine to create a flick that holds up. Solid performances and the pacing of a blockbuster provide the film a respectable thrill, but Hooper’s disturbing imagination guarantees some lingering jitters.

3. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

Director John McNaughton’s unforgivingly realistic picture of American serial killer Henry Lee Lucas offers a uniquely unemotional telling – no swelling strings to warn us danger is afoot and no hero to speak of to balance the ugliness. We follow him through his humdrum days of stalking and then dispatching his prey, until he finds his own unwholesome kind of family in the form of buddy Otis and his sister Becky. What’s diabolically fascinating is the workaday, white trash camaraderie of the psychopath relationship in this film, and the grey areas where one crazy killer feels the other has crossed some line of decency.

McNaughton confuses viewers because the characters you identify with are evil, and even when you think you might be seeing this to understand the origins of the ugliness, he pulls the rug out from under you again by creating an untrustworthy narrative voice. His film is so nonjudgmental, so flatly unemotional, that it’s honestly hard to watch. It’s brilliant nonetheless.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IU3P6WXzvXU

2. The Thing (1981)

John Carpenter’s remake of the 1951 SciFi flick The Thing from Another World is both reverent and barrier-breaking, limiting the original’s Cold War paranoia, and concocting a thoroughly spectacular tale of icy isolation, contamination and mutation.

This is an amped up body snatcher movie benefitting from some of Carpenter’s most cinema-fluent and crafty direction: wide shots when we need to see the vastness of the unruly wilds; tight shots to remind us of the close quarters with parasitic death inside. In an isolated wasteland with barely enough interior room to hold all the facial hair, folks are getting jumpy. The story remains taut beginning to end, and there’s rarely any telling just who is and who is not infected by the last reel. You’re as baffled and confined as the scientists. It’s horror movie magic.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F7t-919Ec9U

1. The Shining (1980)

A study in atmospheric tension, Kubrick’s vision of the Torrance family collapse at the Overlook Hotel is both visually and aurally meticulous. It opens with that stunning helicopter shot, following Jack Torrence’s little yellow Beetle up the mountainside, the ominous score announcing a foreboding that the film never shakes.

Let’s not forget Jack. Nicholson outdoes himself. His veiled contempt early on blossoms into homicidal mania, and there’s something so wonderful about watching Nicholson slowly lose his mind. Between writer’s block, isolation, ghosts, alcohol withdrawal, midlife crisis, and “a momentary loss of muscular coordination,” the playfully sadistic creature lurking inside this husband and father emerges.

What image stays with you most? The two creepy little girls? The blood pouring out of the elevator? The impressive afro in the velvet painting above Scatman Crothers’s bed? That guy in the bear suit – what was going on there? Whatever the answer, thanks be to Kubrick’s deviant yet tidy imagination.

Check out the whole conversation on our FRIGHT CLUB PODCAST.





Furiouser and Furiouser

Furious 7

by George Wolf

So, I went to a car racing movie and the next Avengers broke out. And that’s okay.

After six installments of Fast & Furious, a savvy new director is smart enough to go all in and take number seven to the superhero playground that the previous installments were yearning for.

The entire premise puts the “donk” in redonkulous anyway, so why not go..ahem, full throttle? Remember, these are street racing criminals that have “won” their freedom and are now working for the Feds to take down drug lords and mercenaries. Up to now, the films were just too earnest about what they were shoveling. Credit director James Wan for a welcome “let’s just have fun and do some cool stunts” attitude.

Wan (The Conjuring, Insidious, Saw) lets you know this is a different sort of ride even before the first credits, with a fluid opening full of action and style. After that, we learn that ex-British black ops killing machine Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) has come to avenge his brother from part 6, which means Dominic (Vin Diesel) and his gang have to take Shaw out first.

That mission is sidetracked by Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), a covert intelligence honcho who offers Dominic a deal. Track down a hacker who has invented the world’s best surveillance program (“God’s Eye”!), and get the the full support of U.S. black ops in return.

Ooh, it’s on!

Turns out, though, the hacker gave her program to some guy in Dubai, so it’s off to the UAE so she can sport a bikini and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez’) can fight Ronda Rousey and Dom can fly a super car between two…check that…three skyscrapers!

Wan makes sure that stunt and many others, both car and fist related, look fantastic. In particular, the sequence with Brian (Paul Walker) escaping as a bus falls over cliff is likely to bring roars of gleeful approval.

Dwayne Johnson is still huge, Vin Diesel is still as wooden as his dialogue, and the plot is much more convoluted than necessary, bloating the film by at least thirty minutes. A faster Furious is a leaner, meaner, better Furious.

But there’s fun here. As the gang fights a terrorist and blows up half of downtown LA in the process, just think of these cars as Iron Man’s newest super suit, and go with it.

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars